PCA culture: Baptists chasing status...

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Nathan wrestling last year. Click image to see blood.

My eldest son, Nathan, wrestles for a small Christian school. Wrestlers from his school can usually be distinguished at meets by their t-shirts which have Ephesians 6:12 printed on their backs, "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

I was thinking about Nate's wrestling team as I read the most recent issue of the Presbyterian Church in America's By Faith magazine which focuses its "Arts and Culture" section on Briarwood Presbyterian Church's Briarwood Ballet dance ministry whose two performing companies, Ballet Exaltation and Immanuel, "perform for various schools, churches and civic organizations across the nation and world."

Which, to be honest, sounds, in parts, like a worthy program. What could be wrong, at least theoretically, with teaching young women physical grace and discipline? Of course there are potential negatives: prurience, pride, a focus on physical beauty (which could lead to further sins such as anorexia....). Yet I suspect few would dismiss this as a potentially positive ministry solely for these reasons.

But then, there are the aspirations of those who lead the program...

  • "When I dance or teach, heaven appears for a brief time... I don't know how else to describe it. It's euphoric. It's not an escape--it's a taste of the eternal that I don't get to express in any other way."

  • "Whether believing dancers are performing a 'Christian allegory ballet,' or dancing a small part in Sleeping Beauty, the gospel can be seen through them... 'God has a way of making His truth known through us... As His image-bearers, we present that truth in whatever we do.'"

  • "...one way of restoring the art of dance is for the church to 'focus on sending artists into the world instead of pulling artists out of the world. Dancers might feel that if they're not performing something with an overt Christian message, then they're not bringing glory to God. The truth is, we have the ability to glorify God in everything that we do--whether we're dancing the lead role in the New York City Ballet, or vacuuming the house.'"

Which brings me back to Nathan's wrestling team....

Yes, one can make the argument that all we do can and should be to the glory of God. But does that make all we do worthy of special church emphasis? Does the fact that we vacuum to the glory of God mean we should have "vacuuming-the-house" ministries in our churches? Should vacuuming-the-housers display their skills to the glory of God in Sunday morning worship?

Or, to be more realistic... Wrestling is a recurring Scriptural motif. Rachel wrestles with Leah. Jacob wrestles with God. We wrestle with principalities and powers. The agony of athletic competition is a common Biblical metaphor for faith.

Is there any reason a performance of Sleeping Beauty is more to God's glory than a wrestling meet?

So why no PCA wrestling ministries? And what is there to prevent us from placing a wrestling mat at the front of our sanctuaries and holding wrestling matches during worship "to the glory of God?"

Ah, but there's this.... Wrestlers bleed on the mat. Some cry when they lose. There are injuries. It's not all frills and bows and sweet short dresses. It's masculine, dirty, hard, cutthroat competition.

So why does By Faith focus on the ballet ministry of a flagship PCA church? Why such emphasis on the fine arts in PCA publications and web sites? Why so much glowing attention to painting, dancing, writing?

I was interested to see an article on sports in the same issue of By Faith. It was a good article (and its final third focused on how to avoid having devotion to sports eclipse devotion to God).

But where are similar warnings in By Faith about art? And why do effeminate arts such as dance get such glowing attention in PCA circles while masculine arts such as wrestling get none?

My conviction, increasingly, is that broad elements within the PCA are every bit as captive to culture as seeker churches. The only difference is that the culture the PCA aspires to is upper middle class, not popular.

Which is better: rockabilly worship, drama, dudes preaching in untucked shirts and Powerpoint praise or churches with ballet ministries, fellowship hall fine art shows and a fixation upon "sending artists into the world instead of pulling artists out of the world"?

I am increasingly convinced that the best way to understand PCA culture is to view our denomination as a haven for lower and middle class Baptist families striving to become upper middle class without having to go all the way and become Episcopalian.

So is it wrong for PCA churches to sponsor ballet schools? On the one hand, my answer is, of course not--so long, as we are aware of the dangers of cultural idolatry. But on the other, I smell something of a rat in our approach to such matters....

We warn of the spiritual danger of sports--but take ballet into our sanctuary?

We speak of dancers having "the gospel seen through them" when they dance in secular ballets?

In theory, nothing prevents us from holding dance classes. In practice, I fear such training--at least in the PCA--runs dangerously close to the cultural idolatry we accuse other churches of falling prey to. We're different primarily in that it's highbrow culture we've embraced, not in our refusal to allow the world to press us into its mold.